Digital Menubox

Do we need digital menus?

There was once a time, not too long ago, when famished restaurant-seekers would pause outside one establishment after another, peering at a physical menu encased in a glass box. These menus didn't glow or glisten, nor did they flash specials, updates, or adjust to the particular time of day. It sounds archaic, I know.

Well those days seem to be behind us, as more and more restaurants in Toronto drop yesterday's outdoor menu boxes for new (and improved?) digital menus. The business behind the fancy new fare displays is Digital Menubox, a company launched in 2007 that now boasts over 600 clients in Canada and the U.S.

The idea is simple: outdoor digital menu boxes that can be adjusted and changed to suit the restaurateur's needs. During brunch hours, it'll just show the brunch menu. During dinner--the dinner menu. Upcoming promotions, special events, feature dishes can all be highlighted on the screen. And it can be updated instantly, either by the business owner or by Digital Menubox, depending on your plan.

The question, of course, is whether the new techie menus, which don't require a special permit to display, are worth the hype. Restaurants along King Street West, especially between University and Spadina, seem to have fallen hard for the digital boxes, which can cost a business anywhere from $50 to $250 per month, according to a rep at Digital Menubox. The cost varies depending on the program selected by the client and how much design and maintenance they opt for from the company.

"Our studies show," the representative told me, "that our digital menus stop five times more people, and that they look for three times as long as compared to conventional menu boxes."

Of course, studies don't always translate to the sidewalk, which is often affected by bad weather or loitering hoards of teens. The manager of Springbox Kitchen on King near Bathurst, which has had its own digital menu box for about a month and a half, couldn't really gauge the effect the box was having on profits. "I definitely see people often stopping to take a look," he tells me when I pop in one afternoon. "But I don't know how many actually come inside specifically because of the menu."

The owner of L.A.B. on College echoed the same sort of sentiment when I spoke to him about his digital menu box. "The major failing of the product is when you're running any kind of marketing, it's hard to tell if people are coming in because of the menu box or something else," he said. "We use it for promotions and when we have special events, and it works very well as signage but it's a difficult thing to measure." He said he's not sure if he will renew his contract when his one-year plan is up.

The fancy menuboxes certainly look neat, but are in no way interactive. It seems to me, the real potential to be had of digital menus would be the ability to expand items and information. Perhaps a touch screen where pages could be flipped by a tap (instead of waiting a few seconds for them to turn automatically) and meals could be selected to reveal detailed information, pictures, and ingredients. As is, these digital menus are the same as the physical ones, except perhaps more focused in terms of date and time, and more elaborate visually. But according to Digital Menubox, there are no plans to adopt interactive technology.

So, are these new digital menus really revolutionizing the way restaurants flaunt their fare on the streets of Toronto? Or is it simply all sizzle and no steak?

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